Is Historic Preservation Zoning?

In a victory for preservationists, the Texas Supreme Court upheld Houston's Historic Preservation Ordinance despite a lawsuit alleging that the ordinance constitutes illegal zoning rules.

Read Time: 2 minutes

September 30, 2021, 8:00 AM PDT

By Diana Ionescu @aworkoffiction


Houston Townhouse

holbox / Shutterstock

Sara Bronin examines the long-held maxim that Houston, Texas is "zoning’s last frontier," a sprawling metropolis of essentially unregulated land uses, after a consequential ruling by the state's Supreme Court in a lawsuit that challenged Houston's Historic Preservation Ordinance as a form of de facto land use control, equivalent to zoning.

In a lawsuit named Powell v. City of Houston, two homeowners assert that the city's Historic Preservation Ordinance (HPO), “which requires covered property owners to submit plans for significant exterior changes to the city’s Archaeological and Historical Commission," constitutes a violation of "both Houston’s charter (which requires a citywide referendum to green-light zoning) and the state’s zoning enabling act (Chapter 211 of the Texas Local Government Code)."

According to the city, the HPO is not a zoning regulation. In arguing in support of the city's position, Bronin writes that "[z]oning and historic preservation law derive from distinct legal schemes and have different purposes." Unlike zoning, which regulates "uses, structures, and lots in distinctly-regulated districts," historic preservation is much less comprehensive than zoning and "largely protects a subset of built resources – historic resources – and usually applies to just a fraction of land within any particular jurisdiction."

The Texas Supreme Court agreed, ruling in June that "the ordinance does not implement zoning as that concept is originally understood, and therefore the City Charter’s limits on zoning do not apply," as the HPO "did not come close to citywide applicability, it did not subject regulated property to uniform standards, and it did not implicate uses."

The Court's decision "was a definitive victory for historic preservation, for the City, and for all Houston property owners who opted in to the HPO," letting "the city of no zoning" regulate land use in, at least, a piecemeal way.

Tuesday, September 14, 2021 in SLoG Law Blog

Chicago Commute

The Right to Mobility

As we consider how to decarbonize transportation, preserving mobility, especially for lower- and middle-income people, must be a priority.

January 26, 2023 - Angie Schmitt

Sharrow bike markings on black asphalt two-lane road with snowy trees

Early Sharrow Booster: ‘I Was Wrong’

The lane marking was meant to raise awareness and instill shared respect among drivers and cyclists. But their inefficiency has led supporters to denounce sharrows, pushing instead for more robust bike infrastructure that truly protects riders.

January 26, 2023 - Streetsblog USA

View of stone-paved street with pedestrians and "Farmers Market" neon sign on left and old buildings on right in Seattle, Washington

Push and Pull: The Link Between Walkability and Affordability

The increased demand for walkable urban spaces could make them more and more exclusionary if cities don’t pursue policies to limit displacement and boost affordability.

January 27, 2023 - Smart Cities Dive

Green alley under construction

A New Paradigm for Stormwater Management

Rather than shuttling stormwater away from the city and into the ocean as quickly as possible, Los Angeles is now—slowly—moving toward a ‘city-as-sponge’ approach that would capture and reclaim more water to recharge crucial reservoirs.

5 minutes ago - Curbed

Aerial view of residential neighborhood in La Habra, California at sunset

Orange County Project Could Go Forward Under ‘Builder’s Remedy’

The nation’s largest home builder could receive approval for a 530-unit development under an obscure state law as the city of La Habra’s zoning laws hang in limbo after the state rejected its proposed housing plan.

1 hour ago - Orange County Register

Protesters with signs in Atlanta after Tyre Nichols murder

Memphis: Crime-fighting Camera Sheds Light on Police Abuse

The irony is unmistakable. Public surveillance cameras, long controversial in the criminal justice community, provided pivotal video footage of the beating of motorist Tyre Nichols by five Memphis police officers at a traffic stop on January 7.

2 hours ago - The New York Times